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Developers Plan Urban Oasis at Rail Yard Site : Housing: A flat 100-acre triangle is targeted for a 20-year project, which officials hope will restore a sense of community in the heart of Portland, Ore.


PORTLAND, Ore. — The biggest chunk of vacant land in the urban core of a major U.S. city is about to become one of the biggest planned neighborhoods in the country.

Miles of railroad tracks will be torn up to make way for townhouses and small shops. A river bay will be carved out of an industrial waterfront and surrounded by a promenade. An underground creek will be brought to the surface for a new park that will stretch beneath the shadows of downtown office towers.

All that's needed is just under $1 billion and about 15,000 people.

But the money may be easier to find than the people unless the 20-year River District development project is done just right.

"This stuff just can't be plunked down. There has to be a lot of neighborhood involvement and a lot of grass-roots involvement if it's going to work," said Charles Royer, a Portland native and former Seattle mayor now teaching at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Halting decades of flight to single-family homes in ever-distant suburbs may not be possible, Royer and others say, but this project can serve as a model for reducing urban sprawl and making downtown areas a community.

"Yes, we can build suburbs and let the trend continue, or we can try to reverse that, change that, and bring people back downtown," said Bruce Allen, project manager for the Portland Development Commission.

The flat 100-acre triangle juts northwest from downtown, just before the Willamette River makes its final bend past the city's shipyards to empty into the Columbia River.

Burlington Northern has already sold the land under its tracks, and is only leasing the property until development begins in earnest.

A plan approved by the City Council in May would require $150 million from local and federal government, and assumes that $750 million in private development will follow.

Allen, whose commission will coordinate the project, says several unique factors will encourage investment: the size of the area, waterfront access, little need for environmental cleanup, expanding light-rail service, increasing migration to the Northwest and strong political support.

Pat Prendergast, managing director of Prendergast & Associates Inc., the leading developer, says his company and city planners know they are bucking one trend, but they may be feeding another.

"Nationally, people are moving back to the urban area in cities like Portland. That's a new trend, and it's growing," he said.

Prendergast is betting that theaters, performing arts, sports, shopping and the sheer variety of cultural events downtown will attract people.

"I think you have two different kinds of people," he said. "There are always people who will want to live in a more rural setting. Conversely, there are people who want the diversity of downtown."

John Thompson, associate partner with the Portland firm Zimmer Gunsul Frasca, architect on the project, says a new northeastern suburb the size of the River District would require adding a lane to Interstate 84 at a cost of up to $3 billion.

"For $150 million in infrastructure, we get the same number of people moving to Portland, but they're living downtown without driving their cars to work. There's real value there," Thompson said.

The area was first recommended for transformation from rail yard into a neighborhood more than a decade ago by a team of sociologists and economists including Jim Pettinari, now an urban planner at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

"It's sort of atypical in the sense that it's strategically located," Pettinari said. "It's also huge in size. To realistically fill it up with an urban kind of density, it's kind of like creating another city."

The main question in his mind, and among other planners, is whether the housing will be affordable enough to attract a mix of people and incomes, especially families that traditionally have chosen the suburbs.

John Landis, an urban planner at UC Berkeley, is skeptical. He says Portland is finally feeling some of the pressure that expanded California cities away from their downtown cores.

"By and large, the history of urban California is a history of a state where people have come to live in a suburban community--a single-family home is part of the California dream," he said.

Landis sees few signs that Oregonians have a different dream.

"People are getting older. People have families. They want security. The demographic factors are pushing people out into the suburbs as never before. I think people want to get out of the city," he said.

The farther away from the city, the cheaper the land, and generally the cheaper it is to build sewers, streets, schools and other infrastructure, partly because there are no existing buildings to demolish and clean up.

The key in Portland, said Royer, like Pettinari and other planners, is attracting families downtown. The best way may be to build new schools as part of the development project, making parents and children part of the community.

"We've got to have schools," Royer said. "I don't think it's rocket science to determine that. You need time to build a community. Once the white-picket fence phenomenon takes over, it begins working."

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